The Cogs of Precognition

Scaling Up Expert Opinion
Doug Ryan

Astrobiology Magazine asked experts in online education to rank their wish-list of innovations. The question was posed to former Vice President of the UNext Corporation, Doug Ryan: "From the European Space Agency’s list of science fiction inventions that should be made real, please pick two and discuss how you believe it would most dramatically change the world?"

Doug Ryan: "My feeling is that the inventions that would add the most to our future are not those that correct for human weaknesses, but those that would help us push beyond the limits of our greatest strengths. In particular, our creativity, imagination, and curiosity. Of all the inventions listed, I would find the most value in ‘Instantaneous Communication’ and ‘Waldos.’

Instantaneous Communicators

"Instant communication would allow real-time intellectual collaboration between anyone in the universe. Experts could assist and challenge each other from across the galaxy, increasing both the resources and the pace around any given problem."

Waldos: Telepresence Device

"As I understand them, ‘waldos’ would take the effect one step further by enabling people not to just interact, but to act in a real-time collaborative mode. Imagine an important new building being built on a distant planet. Using instant communication, architects and engineers from multiple worlds could collaborate on the design. Then, using ‘waldos’, the best metalworkers, electricians, and other tradesmen could work on the building’s construction and completion."

"I’ll take that over warp drive any day."

Astrobiology Magazine: Based on your background in online education, what do you think NASA should do to incorporate new models for training and communication?

Ryan: "One problem may be how to scale experts, i.e., how to share a limited number of experts with a far more numerous group of people seeking their expertise."

"Some forms of advanced video conferencing might help this somewhat, in terms of increasing the number of people who can observe the expert."

"However, it achieves this increase in scale only by resorting to a passive broadcast model that depends on discouraging individual interactions and questions. The better, albeit far more difficult, solution would be to incorporate the desired expertise into some form of interactive learning object with which participants could interact."

"My recommendations in order would be:

1) Focus on high fidelity simulations
2) Build flexibility into programs and systems so that training can take a different path for different users
3) Explore ways to integrate training into everyday task completion as opposed to segregated ‘training sessions’ that tend to discriminate against the people who most need training."

Douglas Ryan received a B.S. in engineering from Princeton University and M.B.A. from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business.

Mr. Ryan was co-producer on two independent films, released theatrically in the U.S., one of which won the Best Long Feature Film at the South by Southwest Festival. He is currently at Young & Rubicam in Chicago. Prior to that, he was Vice-President for UNext, an online education company that developed education courses in partnership with Stanford University, The University of Chicago, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He earlier also served as Vice President for the Netdox Company, a secure Internet messaging services company.

Which gadgets can unlock the next technological revolutions? What is the next big thing?

To propose answers to this question, the sixteen nations of the European Space Agency commissioned a project called "Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Space Applications" (ITSF). Their results were co-published with two supervisory foundations, the Swiss museum Maison d’Ailleurs and the astronautical society, or OURS Foundation. One aim was to discover what their study called the facts of ‘hard science-fiction’: literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone.

ESA Report Cover
Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction. Credit: ITSF/ESA

As Caltech physicist, author and visiting scholar for NASA’s Exobiology Center, David Brin, described in his PBS interview for the special, Closer To Truth: "perhaps an alternative name could have been ‘speculative history’ because [hard science-fiction authors] deal in different pasts, alternate presents, extension of the human drama into the future…Einstein used the word gedanken experiment and he coined it, he said that just sitting on a streetcar in Bern, leaving the clock tower and imagining he was riding on a beam of light, was 50% of the work [of relativity].

Augmented Science: Galileo’s Ship

The history of drawing inspiration from speculative literature is deep with success stories.

As early as 1632, to advocate for his classical principle of relativity, Galileo used a fictional character called Salviati who while locked in a closed room below a ship deck, observes a small fish tank which remains quiescent and undisturbed unless the ship accelerates. In dialogue format, he answers all the common scientific arguments against the idea that the earth moves.

"Jurassic Park" probably taught more people about DNA and what that means than most colleges in the country. –Robert Kuhn, PBS

Predating lunar travel classics by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were Cyrano de Bergerac‘s Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1656), space travel in Voltaire‘s Micromégas (1752), and alien cultures in Jonathan Swift‘s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Even as the liquid-propelled rockets were first being tested by Robert Goddard in the 1920’s, technical proposals had already appeared for planetary landers (1928) and aerodynamically-stabilized rocket fins (1929).

Perhaps the most detailed and famous publication was Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s 1945 paper, "Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?", that laid down the principles of modern satellite communications and geostationary orbits [Wireless World, October 1945].

A half-century later, even a few hours of interruption in this global network today would seem catastrophic: crippled health care delivery, financial disruption including failed automated teller machines and credit card validations, grounded travellers for lack of airline weather tracking, and global TV blackouts. But in 1945, the idea of geostationary satellites had a different kind of reception, as Clarke wrote: "Many may consider the solution proposed [for extra-terrestrial relay services] too far-fetched to be taken seriously. Such an attitude is unreasonable, as everything envisaged here is a logical extension of developments in the last ten years…"

Large, smooth basin. At bottom lie scattered boulders that appear like pebbles by comparison to the crater.
The rocks inside a crater on the Asteroid Eros. Numerous small impacts on the asteroid show brown boulders visible interior to the less exposed (white) lip of the crater. False-color for emphasis. Credit: NEAR Project, JHU APL, NASA

The European space study, appropriately timed for Clarke’s "Space Odyssey" series, completed its first project phase in 2001. Altogether fifty fact sheets and technical dossiers were published to catalog the inventions that should be made real. In addition, more than two hundred technologies were outlined and graded for future feasibility studies. Ranging from astrobiology to propulsion, their complete ‘what-if’ list is available in broad categories online.

Examples Pushing the Envelope

One mission that has been described in the ESA study is soon to become closer to fact: a fantastic mission to a comet. Seventeen years ago, astrobiologist David Brin’s "Heart of the Comet" [1986], extended Jules Vernes’ mythical tour of the solar system on a comet.

Verne got many of his science guesses right. For instance, although not well-understood at the time, he correctly attributed that– given the distance of his travellers from the Sun– then a comet would resemble something more like an ice-ball, and not a fiery-hot world. He wrote: "The solidity of the ice was perfect; the utter stillness of the air at the time when the final congelation of the waters had taken place had resulted in the formation of a surface that for smoothness would rival a skating-rink; without a crack or flaw it extended far beyond the range of vision."

But the asteroid and cometary science planned for international missions is approaching the realm of fantastic. On Valentine’s Day, 2001, the Near-Shoemaker spacecraft successfully landed on the asteroid, Eros. Its remarkable journey–to soft-land on a peanut shaped asteroid about 176 million kilometers (109 million miles) from Earth, prompted Andrew Cheng, NEAR Project Scientist, to note: "On Monday, 12 February 2001, the NEAR spacecraft touched down on asteroid Eros, after transmitting 69 close-up images of the surface during its final descent. Watching that event was the most exciting experience of my life."

Icy-rock core of Halley’s Comet

In May 2003, a Japanese probe [called Muses-C] lifted off on the world’s first mission to collect samples from the surface of an asteroid, part of a four-year journey covering nearly 400 million miles.

On Jan. 2, 2004, the spacecraft called Stardust will fly within 75 miles of a cometary main body (called Wild-2), close enough to trap small particles from the coma, the gas-and-dust envelope surrounding the comet’s nucleus. Stardust will be traveling at about 13,400 miles per hour and will capture comet particles traveling at the speed of a bullet fired from a rifle. Launched in February 1999, Stardust was designed to capture particles from Wild 2 and return them to Earth for analysis. The spacecraft already has collected grains of interstellar dust. It is the first U.S. sample-return mission since the last moon landing in 1972.

In the next 5 or so years, there will be multiple encounters of spacecraft with comets and asteroids. All the following missions are fully funded, though only not all have already been launched :

2001 Sept. 22 Comet Borrelly Deep Space One (simple flyby)  
2004 Jan. 1 Comet Wild 2 Stardust (coma sample return)
2005 July 3 Comet Tempel 1 Deep Impact (big mass impact)
2005 Sept. Asteroid 1998 SF36 Muses-C (sample return)


Pre-emptive Fiction

But according to David Brin, the most intriguing categories of his speculative histories are the ones that are either interrupted or pre-empted.

The rule on staying alive as a forecaster is to give them a number or give them a date, but never give them both at once. — Jane Bryant Quinn, US financial columnist

Brin explained: "I think the most powerful science fiction stories are not those that accurately predict the future, but, rather, those that have prevented futures, the self-preventing prophecy that came across so chilling, and so many people read it and were so moved, that the very scenario that might have plausibly happened didn’t happen, the two that really prevented the futures they described, "1984," by George Orwell, and probably the greatest science fiction author who ever lived, Karl Marx’s "Das Kapital," which utterly prevented the scenario that it described".

What’s Next

This year offers a case of what seems to be science fiction as astronomical fact: the closest approach between Mars and the Earth in 73,000 years. Four current Mars missions hope to take advantage of the confluence, as this summer the Red Planet will appear brighter than Jupiter as the brightest object in the night sky. As a timely prelude of things to come, the moon will eclipse Mars tonight in North America for up to 90 minutes. But more than a hundred years ago, in 1894–one of the last times such dramatic astronomical events gripped the visual imagination of authors– many of the modern concepts about intelligent life elsewhere first took shape. The celestial mechanics of the night sky translated to a cultural picture of what life elsewhere might resemble.

For instance, the idea that Mars might have a humanoid civilization is relatively modern, but needed both an event and a real-world, technological boost from telescope builders. Mars as a home needed first for astronomers to describe what appeared to them as an elaborate martian canal system. This lineage continued from when astronomer Percival Lowell began advocating for the canals on Mars, until H.G. Wells further propagated those civilizations in his classic "War of the Worlds". In an interview on the ESA project for Radio Netherlands, NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay pointed out this lineage–and that science and our cultural ideas about astrobiology are intertwined with these events: "When people first started pointing telescopes at Mars," McKay explained, "they noticed seasonal changes very much like on Earth. Then Percival Lowell reported seeing ‘canals’ on Mars and created an elaborate story that they had been made by a dying Martian civilization."

From Galileo’s ship to Einstein’s thought experiments about travelling on a light beam, the technical dossier of ‘what will be the next big thing?’ continues to be a relevant question for both speculative historians and science planners alike.

Related Web Pages

Long, Strange Trips
PBS: Is Science Fiction Science? Michael Crichton, David Brin, Octavia Butler
Search for Life in the Universe: Part I
A Perfect World I: Tyson
A Perfect World II: Richardson
A Perfect World III: Goldin
A Perfect World IV: Venter
A Perfect World V: Hendricks
A Perfect World VI: Fuller